Emmaline tasted the inside of her mouth and thought of fire—in the grate, flickering on a match, billowing beneath rocket ships, blazing in the sky. She thought of the will she’d drafted and the requests she’d made, of her house on the edge of the dwindling forest and the way the boughs of the trees glowed like torches in the afternoon light. Her husband, Douglas, rested in the ground beneath a stone, his ashes in the earth, helping things grow.
“I want to become a tree,” he’d say, and so she buried his ashes with a pack of seeds.
Emmaline stood in the kitchen, a warm mug in her thin, wrinkled hands, looking out of the wide window that faced the back yard. Her eyes rested on the open hole in the middle of the ground. It was deep and cavernous, like a mouth opened in song, and the soil within and around it was black with moisture. Along its perimeter, thin grass grew long and wiry, the kind that flourished after the rain. She turned away from the window and instead looked around the kitchen. It was painted a soft blue and covered in pieces of her own ceramic art and wall hangings: a cookie jar, mugs hung from hooks, framed mosaics made from crushed glass and pressed clay. The interior of the house was hers, but the garden belonged to Douglas. There were days when he’d spend hours kneeled in the dirt, soil up to his elbows as he planted flowers and shrubs and bushes. “You have to start them deep, so the roots will take,” he’d say. She would watch him as the day wore on: sun above him, at his side, at his back, and then call him in for dinner and a warm bath. He’d come, smelling of earth and sweat and sun, smiling.
Emmaline placed her mug into the sink and made her way into the sun-filled living room. She sat in her chair and wrapped her blanket around her, feeling her insides ache dully. The doctor had said it would get worse over time, but it wasn’t always so bad. She mostly felt tired, like she’d been awake far too long. As a result she took naps throughout the day, settling in her chair or in the bed, closing her eyes and thinking of Douglas.
“Return me to the earth, Emma.”
Emmaline opened her eyes. He sat there, smiling at her, looking slightly out of focus. She wanted to smile back, but instead she sighed, deep and heavy like a bellows slowly being squeezed. “But you’ve never been away,” she said, her voice soft.
“Then where do I come from? Where do I go back to? Ashes to ashes and—”
“Dust to dust,” Emmaline finished. She turned away from her husband, the same old conversation, sitting in his old chair across from her like he’d always done, except she now knew he wouldn’t stay long. She could see it in his eyes first, how they’d grow cold and distant like the sheen of a soap bubble moments before it pops. And then his voice would fade, and he would become less solid, or simply less there and she’d come to her senses.
“Does it hurt, Doug?” she whispered after a while.
He didn’t answer, but she already knew he wouldn’t.
She looked away again, not wanting to see the empty chair, and instead stared out of the window where the sun was burning bright, floating in the milky blue of the sky. She shielded her eyes and imagined she could see Douglas there, hand outstretched and waiting for her in that ring of fire. He’d said he’d wait for her once before, but then he’d gone away under the ground with his seeds, and she’d covered him up with soft wet soil that never really dried for the rain. Each time she’d visit she’d kneel forward, knees sinking in the dirt, and she could feel a heartbeat in her legs—perhaps hers or the earth’s, or even the collective heartbeat of the seeds sitting in the ashes. She’d leave without wiping the dirt away, letting her legs be stained as she walked, watching the dirt fill in the wrinkles and creases of her ruined skin.
Emmaline twisted her fingers in her lap. Her doctor was looking at her appraisingly, his smooth faced carrying a detached expression as if they were strangers discussing traffic or the weather. They’d been sitting in silence for only a few moments, but it settled on her like a weight.
“How long after?” she asked. The doctor scratched his cheek and looked around the room as he thought. She could see stubble along his chin creating a thick shadow that stretched to his throat. He gave a little cough, still rubbing his face, and said, “Oh, immediately. As soon as it can be done, if you like.”
“And what will happen to me?”
“Some families have the funeral before, others have it afterwards and then…either they keep the urn, bury the remains, or spread them where the loved one wished.”
“Anywhere I wish?”
“Of course. So long as it’s not illegal—or on private property. Sure.”
Emmaline turned in her seat. “Doug?” Her husband sat in the chair behind her, his hands clasped, rotating his thumbs one around the other. “We ought to have planted more trees, Emma,” he said, looking out of the window. Emmaline’s eyes filled with tears.
“You know,” said the doctor, watching her. “You can always reconsider your decision. It won’t be easy, but we can potentially cure this. Cancer isn’t a death sentence anymore.”
Emmaline looked up, clutching at her sweater. She smiled and wiped her eyes hastily. “Oh no,” she said. “Oh no.”
The doctor sat back in his chair, his mouth tight. Emmaline continued to shake her head.
“I couldn’t afford the treatment and…” she glanced behind her again. “And well, I think it might kill me. I’ve never been good at tolerating strong medications. I’m—” she gathered all her breath in her throat. “I’m scared. I’m scared to die but I know I don’t want to die like that.”
The doctor’s jaw jumped as if he were chewing his tongue. He cleared his throat and said, “There are alternatives. It wouldn’t have to be such harsh treatment. And there are ways to cover the cost. There are lots of options open to you, and the odds are better now than they were a decade ago. You don’t have to do nothing.” Emmaline looked away, wiping her eyes. She shook her head again, but said nothing.
“You don’t have to decide it all today,” the doctor said, handing her a tissue.
“I haven’t really got much time to think,” she replied.
“You have enough.”
She turned again. “Doug?” But he was gone. She looked around, shocked, and then spotted him standing outside, examining the sky. Emmaline got to her feet; the doctor didn’t look up as she left.
Emmaline awoke in the middle of the night weeping. Her bones were aching and she was frightened—so frightened that she felt like a child again and thought of her mother, wanting to call out to her. Light flooded the room as she turned on her bedside lamp. Her Bible lay there, as well as her rosary. She took her beads in her thin, bony fingers and kissed them, then held them to her chest.
She turned with a start and saw Douglas sitting at the foot of the bed. “Emma.” Emmaline reached for him and he gave her his hand. It was warm, soft, and slippery, like trying to hold water.
“Now?” she whispered.
“Not now, Dear. But soon.”
“It hurts, Doug,” she whispered again, through tears. “It hurts so much. I want Momma.”
The next morning Emmaline awoke to sunshine and lamplight. The Bible lay against her chest and her rosary was wrapped around her fingers. She sat up in bed and looked around the room. Since Douglas had died it seemed too big, like it could swallow her up. Emmaline still slept on the right side of their king-sized bed. She only took up half of the closet with her clothes and shoes, and some of the dresser drawers lay empty. There was a large vanity mirror that rested against the opposite wall and stuck in its framed edges were pictures: Polaroids of her and Douglas, of the cat they had owned that had died, of Douglas in the garden, of her at the rec center where she made her ceramics, of vacations and quiet nights and beach days a thousand years ago. She turned away from it and opened the drawer of her bedside table where she kept her will neatly folded. Extracting it gently, Emmaline raised herself against her pillows and looked it over, reveling in the thought that it, along with everything around her, would soon be gone.
Over the next few days, Emmaline took to staying out of the house, unable to face the items she was sure she’d feel attached to if she looked too long. Instead she spent time sitting in the garden, collecting seeds or reading or drinking tea; the great hole stretched out before her with its maw opened wide, almost indecent. Douglas had wanted to plant a tree there, raise it from a seed with water, sun, and soil. But he had died before he had been able to plant it, instead taking the small packet of seeds he’d collected and saved into the earth with him. Emmaline had come out of the house one particularly warm morning with a glass of water to find him collapsed beside the hole, the shovel inches from his fingers.
“Return me to the earth,” he used to say before bed every night in his prayers, and she’d clench her fists and think about how God wouldn’t let him stay in the earth for long, would instead take him, the real him, up into the sky. But Douglas’ soul wasn’t with her anymore, and his body, broken down and burned, was now in a cemetery down the way with those seeds he’d died holding. Each time she’d visit him, she expected to see a sprout or delicate green shoot, the beginnings of something more than grass.
“Have you made up your mind?” The doctor asked, sitting across from her again and smiling serenely as if they were trying to figure out where to go for lunch. Time had passed, the weather had gotten colder, and she’d still been waking up in pain, crying and whimpering, night after night. Not yet, but soon, Douglas had said, but he hadn’t been back to comfort her since that first night, to say how soon, to say how much longer, and she knew she couldn’t keep waiting.
“You’re entirely sure about cremation?”
“Oh,” said Emmaline, flustered. “Yes. Yes, that’s what we’ve decided.”
The doctor nodded, still smiling, and wrote something down on a piece of paper. Emmaline looked out of the window at the sky where clouds were rolling in for another bout of rain.
That night, Emmaline walked through the house in her dressing gown, feet covered in thick socks and her arms wrapped around her, listening to the pounding rain. She exhaled and saw mist in the air, feeling colder than she ever had in her life. She entered the bedroom and immediately buried herself beneath the covers. She shivered and closed her eyes, thinking of the hole outside filling with muddy water and Doug’s flowers drinking then drowning in the downpour. She suddenly felt a soft weight settle at the edge of the bed, but she kept her eyes closed.
For a moment, it was quiet except for the sound of the rain and the distant rumblings of thunder. Emmaline stayed still, listening to her breath beneath the covers, feeling the weight at the edge of the bed, waiting.
She didn’t move.
“Emma, dear. It’s time.”
Emmaline’s eyes flew open. “Momma?” She lowered the covers.
“No, dear. It’s me,” Doug said, smiling at her. “Are you in pain?”
Emmaline shook her head, surprised that for once her bones were not aching and burning within her. “It’s time?”
Douglas nodded and stood up, his hand outstretched. “Of course,” Emmaline whispered, pulling herself out from under the covers. “Where’s Momma?”
Douglas still smiled as he helped her up. “On her way,” he said. “Come on now.” Emmaline made the bed and followed him. They tiptoed through the cold house, the dark hallways hung with paintings and pictures. In the kitchen, she turned on the light and rummaged through the cabinet above the sink until she found the small bottle she was looking for. She emptied four pills into her shaking hand, and poured herself some water in one of her ceramic mugs. Emmaline turned off the light quickly, hardly giving herself a moment to look around and made to follow Douglas back to the bedroom, but he was gone again. She hovered for a moment, feeling her heart hammering, and then hurried back alone.
Back in the bedroom, Emmaline turned out the lamp and sat on the bed. She placed the pills in her mouth one at a time, raised the mug to her lips, drank deeply, and swallowed, again and again until they were gone. She took the Bible and her rosary in her hands and laid back down in the dark. In the lull of the storm, she could hear Douglas moving through the house, whispering to the forest and the garden. She wanted to call to him, but instead she laid back against the pillows and felt through the darkness for the matches she had left in her beside drawer and the flat packet beneath them. Her fingers closed over the thin matchsticks and she raised them to her nose, breathing in their woody scent. She closed her eyes, compounding the darkness, and struck the matches against the Bible all at once. She knew it had worked before she opened her eyes, heard the gasp of the fire as it burst into life, and then smelled the unmistakable burning.
Emmaline could feel her heart racing as she held the matches between her thumb and forefinger, waiting for the moment to let them fall. She gripped the rosary in her other hand, exhaled, and then threw the matches from her—small pinpoints of light that hovered in the air for a moment, fell to the ground, and then grew like the sunrise. In the firelight, she reached for the thin packet of seeds she’d collected from the garden, and tucked it into her dressing gown over her heart. Emmaline turned away from the flames and wrapped her arms across her chest. She began to feel drowsy and heavy, but warm and content as if she were simply drifting off to sleep after a long day. Her eyes fluttered closed and she suddenly felt a hand, warm and soft, touch her face.
“Stay still,” a voice said, but it wasn’t Douglas. She could still hear him whispering through the house, helping the fire grow. Emmaline smiled and felt tears slide sideways into her hair. The warm hand touched her eyes and her forehead, stroking her skin gently as if she were a newborn.
“Momma,” she whispered, and tried to open her eyes, but all she could see were shadows obscuring a smiling face. The room grew hot and stifling, smoke rising in columns as everything burned: her dresser, her clothes, the carpet, the walls. Her grip on her rosary and Bible loosened as darkness overtook her. She turned her head and felt the warmth of her mother against her and cried into the warm, soft hands. Douglas had left the house, but she knew he was still waiting—he was just giving her time.
As her mother held her, the fire grew, and she felt herself slipping farther away. She imagined the flames spreading throughout the house, looking into the other rooms—the bathroom, the kitchen, the sitting room—and devouring everything she and Douglas had ever owned. The Polaroids curled against the mirror, the ceramics cracked and splintered, the paintings melted, the walls turned black. She imagined the temperature rising and the air dancing in waves, thick with smoke. She thought of the house going up in flames, then crumpling to a smoldering wreck, enclosing her in a burning tomb, returning her to the earth. She thought of the forest and the trees and their glowing boughs in the sunlight. And she thought of the packet of seeds from the garden lying against her skin, curling and blackening in the flames until the seeds germinated, brought suddenly to life by the heat, finally sprouting into the trees she and Douglas had never planted.Kathryn H. Ross is a Los Angeles native whose work has appeared in Split Lip Magazine, Whale Road Review, and Uppagus, as well as others. Keep up with her at speakthewritelanguage.com.